Waves of student protesters spilled through the streets of Montreal Thursday in the largest mobilization to date against the Liberal government's tuition-fee hike, as unrest against the increases shows no signs of abating.
Tens of thousands of students snarled traffic in a noisy but peaceful procession through Montreal, home to four universities. The march was the latest in a string of nearly daily student demonstrations that have gained momentum as much as they have tested the patience of motorists.
The students are opposed to a $325 tuition-fee increase in each year of the next five years. Despite the hikes, students in the province would still pay well below the Canadian average.
The protest unfurled in a sea of chants, horns and imaginative anti-government signs, beginning amid the stores and office towers at lunchtime in the heart of Montreal.
There were no reports of violent incidents involving the throng of students. There was, however, a threat from a major student protest group: "If the government doesn't announce a retreat on the [tuition]hike today, the next step will involve actions that disrupt the economy," the C.L.A.S.S.E. group posted on its Twitter page.
Premier Jean Charest remained unmoved by Thursday's turnout, which came two days after the government's provincial budget. The Premier said the tuition hikes were thought out for years, and reflect his government's will to give Quebec a "world-class" post-secondary education system.
He noted that even after the hikes, Quebec students will end up paying 17 per cent of the cost of their education.
"Those who are making the biggest effort are middle-class taxpayers," he said.
The tuition increase goes into effect this fall.
The protests have sharply divided public opinion, with the latest poll showing that 50 per cent support the government's move and 42 per cent back the students.
The threat of student unrest has kept Quebec political leaders from touching tuition fees over the years; the fees have remained unchanged in the province for 33 of the past 43 years.
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, whose party is leading in the latest public-opinion polls, has thrown her support behind the students, and promised today that a PQ government would annul the increases. An election has to be held in Quebec by the end of 2013.
"I hope Mr. Charest opens the door to dialogue … because this doesn't make sense," Ms. Marois said.
With a report from The Canadian Press